John o' Groats is situated at the northernmost tip of Scotland, and a small sign in the harbor says "Land's End 876 miles." Nice geography lesson, but car enthusiasts should note that this sparsely populated area is also home to some of the most spectacular driving roads in Britain.
The A9 runs up the coast from Wick to John 'o Groats, past Dunnet Head, before becoming the A836. On its way, the views are spectacular, but if you are going as fast as I am today, you need to keep your eyes bolted firmly on the road. Crests, dips, fast turns and some very long straights are all on the menu, and the Alfa Romeo 156 GTA is lapping it all up with a raw ability and exuberance seldom encountered in increasingly capable but characterless modern cars.
GTA. That's an old moniker, but a distinctly Alfa one-1969 was the year when it was applied to the neat little Bertone coupe that went racing and won countless events. In later GTAM form, the car became a racing legend.
Heady stuff that, and with such a mighty reputation to live up to, you can be sure Alfa Romeo does not apply the GTA badge lightly. It was right to hold it back all these years, waiting for a worthy successor to wear it with pride and confidence.
For Alfa fans, the wait has been well worth it. Plain and simple, with its 250-bhp 3.2-liter V6, the new 156 GTA is the most inspirational front-wheel-drive car I have ever driven. That it is also the fastest production Alfa Romeo ever is almost incidental.
A front-wheel-drive car with 250 bhp would normally be a recipe for torque steer and all kinds of other handling woes. Cadillac's 300-bhp Northstar V8 engine creates havoc in its front-drivers, and tuning VW Golfs beyond 200 bhp quickly shows up the shortcomings of MacPherson strut front suspension.
I pondered this as I pushed the Alfa GTA harder and harder through the turns, looking for signs of misbehavior. Coming out of one tight, uphill right-hander, I deliberately floored the throttle early to try and provoke the front end. On the dry surface, grip from the 225/45ZR17 Michelin tires on 7.5Jx17-in. alloys was enormous. Although the traction-control light flashed for an instant, the uprated double-wishbone front suspension hunkered down, converting engine output to forward motion with hardly a wiggle through the steering wheel.
You can tell this car is aimed at serious drivers, because the ASR traction control has some tolerance dialed in so it does not shut down proceedings at the merest hint of slip at the front wheels. It does curb excessive wheelspin but helps you make maximum progress by allowing some degree of throttle steer.
The front end is very pointy. Just 1.75 turns lock-to-lock make the rack-and-pinion steering significantly quicker than the 2.2 turns of the normal 156, already strong in steering response and feel. On the other hand, because the rest of the chassis has been uprated to suit, the GTA remains totally balanced and never nervous when turning-in, even at high speeds under braking. The only downside to the quick steering rack and larger rubber is the turning circle restriction I discovered in a car park.
As I was shown in a rather spectacular racetrack video sequence narrated by Alfa's chief test driver, you can throw the GTA into a corner sideways and opposite lock it on power almost like a rear driver! I stopped short of that on public roads, but, on the other hand, racetracks are smooth and some of the bumps and crests of these Scottish byways were already testing the chassis to its limits in the vertical plane. On a very fast dip with bumps involved, I did manage to bottom the car, but at that point I was really trying!